Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Today I Feel Like a Failure

(This was originally my private journal entry today - but I decided to out myself on the chance that some of you, maybe many of you, have felt the same.)

Today I feel like a failure. There. I said it.

The past couple weeks have been the worst: chock full of disappointments, rejection, disagreements. My career is flailing. Three big workshops I was supposed to teach were cancelled. I’m getting paid peanuts to write boring research articles that no one will ever read. My tax returns are an embarrassment to all tax returns. My little ones are fighting constantly and I’ve tried everything I know to stop it, but Friday ended in them injuring each other, and me crumpling to a heap and sobbing. (For the record, I don’t cry very often, so this is kind of a big deal.) And then I got on my damn knees and prayed. And cried. And prayed some more.

I feel like a complete failure in my career, an even bigger failure as a parent, and a general failure as a human.

One of my friends was shocked that I could be having a bad day. “Your life looks pretty great from what I see on facebook.” And to that friend I said, everyone has a bright and shiny life on facebook, because we post only the highlights. We don’t post things like “My kids are at each others throats and I can’t find any work and I haven’t made one dime on my book.”  Another friend said CHEER UP! which is the most invalidating thing you can say to a person who is hurting. Even during trying times we all have much to be grateful for – I absolutely know this. But it’s a challenge to enjoy the lovely weather while your ship is sinking. I need to acknowledge the fact that my ship is sinking. I have to figure out how to fix it, or jump out and learn how to swim.

Over the weekend, bolstered by the kindness of friends and my husband, I pulled myself up by my proverbial bootstraps and by Monday I was ready to take on the week. And then wham-o. At 8am, major rejection from an agent who had read my full manuscript. And it was a nice, thoughtful response. She loved my writing, said the part about us being trapped in the burning house had her on the edge of her seat and near tears. She liked the drama and the dark parts. But some of the other parts she found “banal”. I’m sorry, she said, I’m sure that time in your life didn’t feel banal to you.

It’s been running through my head ever since. It’s not just my book she’s talking about. It’s my LIFE.
Here’s how Websters Dictionary defines it.
Banal: So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.
Synonyms: trite - commonplace - hackneyed - trivial - platitudinous

I know, I know…She’s just one person. That’s just one opinion. J.D. Salinger got rejection letters, too. And it shouldn’t bother me but it does. You put years into a book, you put your heart out there, completely vulnerable, and it’s hard. I had pain in my stomach all day yesterday, as if I’d actually been kicked in the gut. 

But listen - this blog is not a pity party. I’m not posting it so everyone will say “You’re not a failure!” This is a moment in my life – a shitty moment – but a moment nonetheless. I don’t intend to stay stuck here, but I’m giving myself a minute to grieve over dreams not panning out, the powerlessness I feel, my inability to find work, getting older, the fear that I’ll never amount to anything, the worry over my kids. That’s all real stuff. I can’t change it if I don’t acknowledge it.

I also know that this feeling is just part of being human. Everyone has failed. Everyone has felt terrible about themselves at some point. It’s what you do after you’ve failed that makes or breaks you. I could throw in the towel. I’ve done that before. Or I could decide not to give up, like these people did.

Here is what author Kathryn Stockett has to say about rejection: 

 “I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere.”

So I’ll keep sending my book out until I find the agent/publisher/editor who gets it because I know there are people who will find hope in my book- and hope is a much needed commodity in this world. And I’ll write these cheap research articles until something better comes along. And I’ll try each day to be the best parent I can be even when it doesn’t seem to be working.

Susan Sarandon said that every time she faces rejection, she celebrates because she knows she is being moved closer to what is right for her. I don't know if I'm that evolved, but hell, I like champagne.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

"35 Years Ago, It Could Have Been Me"


“35 years ago, this could have been me.” These were President Obama’s words about Trayvon Martin in his impromptu speech on July 19th, following Zimmerman's not guilty verdict for the murder of Trayvon.

And it hit me in that moment. 35 years ago, theoretically, it could have been me, too. But it wasn’t.

For 16 months, the right-wing media has been on a nonstop campaign to portray Trayvon Martin- the murder victim- as a thug who deserved what he got. He was, after all, suspended from school for having traces of marijuana in his backpack. And he sent a few inappropriate tweets.

Let me tell you about my own teenaged past.

Like Trayvon, I was a good student, getting mostly A's and B's.
I also smoked pot.
I drank at parties.
I was picked up by the police for truancy, even handcuffed and taken in to the station.
I was in trouble with the principal for forging absence notes.
I sent inappropriate notes to friends filled with bad words (my day’s version of tweeting)
I once shoplifted, to see if I could get away with it. I did, because security never follows me in a store.
I got in a few fistfights when I was younger. (Like Trayvon, I defended myself against bullies.)
On my way to or from parties, I was often walking in wealthy neighborhoods late at night, where I didn’t belong.

But no one ever thought I was a bad kid. No one ever bothered me when I was walking in wealthy neighborhoods late at night because I looked like this:

And though I was a poor kid from the other side of the tracks, my mother never had to worry about someone shooting me for walking in the wrong neighborhood.

And then there’s my friend Dennis. He and I grew up together since the first grade. We lived in the same neighborhood. Had the same friends. Went to the same parties. But Dennis is black. His experience was very different than mine. Dennis served in the military just out of high school. He was stationed in Coronado, a very wealthy, very white neighborhood in San Diego. Every weekend when he was on leave and in civilian clothes, he would get pulled over by police and questioned: What are you doing here? Where are you going? What's in your car?  

Can you imagine serving in the U.S. military, and facing that humiliation week after week? And the thing is, though Dennis and I have been best friends for 45 years, he'd never told me that before. Immediately after the Zimmerman verdict, Dennis called me, and for the first time ever, we talked about race.

If there is any silver lining in this Trayvon Martin tragedy, it's that it has opened up some necessary wounds, and given us all a strong dose of reality. It’s time we all start sharing our stories. It's time we really listen, and try to understand another person’s point of view.

When I started working in gun violence prevention after Newtown, I began talking with a lot of parents who had lost children. Many of those parents were black. They too were moved to action by Newtown, but their words to me were: This has been happening in our communities for a long time. Our children are dying every day, but no one notices. It took the murder of 20 white children to get America's attention.

Linda Jay, one of the most courageous warriors for gun reform that I know, holds a picture of her daughter who was murdered.
Before I met these parents, I didn’t really know how deep the problem was because the media’s coverage is so minimal. Until I was standing in the streets marching with these mother and fathers, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really know.

Now I know. We all know. And it’s up to us to take action. No mother or father should ever have to lose a child, or to face this kind of injustice again.

If Trayvon Martin was a thug, then I was a thug, too. But because of the color of my skin, I got to finish high school, go on to college, and have a family, a full life and a rewarding career. I want all children to be safe on the streets of America. I want them to be safe in their neighborhoods, in schools, in movie theatres. I want them to be safe from dangerous Stand Your Ground laws devised by the NRA. All children deserve to grow up to have the opportunities I had.

Currently 24 states have Stand Your Ground (or similar) laws. I will stand my ground as a mom- and campaign until the last of these laws is overturned.

(Click here to read my blog on the roots of racism: Lizard Brain Strikes Again )

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Black in America- a guest post by Marquis Alexander

Today I turn my blog over to guest writer, Marquis Alexander. My husband Troy became friends with Marquis while the two of them were in an improv troupe. They spent a year laughing and performing together. Marquis is one of the funniest people I know. He is smart, highly educated, a political activist. He is friendly, outgoing and kind.  He also happens to be a black man, which has rendered him subject to experiences that many of us could never imagine. In the wake of George Zimmerman's "not guilty" verdict, I think we all need to wake up. We need to share our stories, we need to listen more. This is Marquis' experience of being black in America.

The Zimmerman Verdict Through the Eyes of a Black Man
By Marquis Alexander
We live in a nation that is terribly divided. A nation where some of its citizens are letting out cheers of joy because the shooter of a teenager walks free while others sheds tears of sadness because they feel that yet again our justice system has declared that while all men are created equal, all men are not regarded as such in the eyes of the law. Let me be clear, I feel no hate or ill will towards George Zimmerman. He is just another actor in this tragic play called America. I don't think he woke up in the morning looking to kill Trayvon on that fateful day, but I feel he was certainly responsible for the unnecessary death of a young man who was just trying to go home. In theory, when the gun toting George Zimmerman chose to get out of his car and "make sure the little punk didn't get away" instead of allowing the police to do their jobs, he then assumed responsibility for all that would follow. That's the way it should work, in theory, anyway.

Unfortunately, the jury and a large swath of America don't see it that way. As a black man what this judgment underscores isn't a lack of justice for Trayvon, but a deeper, scarier truth that I am not a man, but a suspect. This verdict says that if my mere presence as a black man is enough for you to feel threatened, and if you act from that place of fear your actions will be justified under the law and you will face no consequences if you turn out to be completely wrong and I end up completely dead.

The most difficult thing with this case is trying to explain to white people what it feels like to be a suspect every moment of your life. I'm sure every black male has a story of when they were pulled over for driving while black, walking while black, or hell just breathing while black. I'll list just a few of mine:

 I was 12 the first time I was randomly stopped by police and questioned because I was walking through Broadview (a white suburb of Chicago) on my way to my aunt's house in La Grange. After convincing them that I wasn't up to no good, they told me to hurry it along. When I was 14, I was a freshman on the football team at Proviso East High School which happened to be all black. After getting our asses kicked by Downers Grove South, we were walking to the bus to head back home. A few Downers Grove policemen pulled up, jumped out of their squad cars, hands on guns, and asked our white coach "Are you okay? Are these guys bothering you?" Even after he had assured them that the large black men WEARING FOOTBALL UNIFORMS were his team and that he was fine, they still asked him "Are you sure?" When I was 17 (same age as Trayvon) I was pulled over while biking to my father's house in Palos Hills. After explaining to the officers that I was coming from work (mind you I'm wearing my Burger King uniform and Burger King hat) and heading home, they commenced to tell me I was headed the wrong way and that the Trace (the subdivisions where the poor and middle class families lived) was that way. Giving him my best what the fuck are you talking about face, I told him "My father doesn't live in the Trace."

I could go on and on with these stories, like the time my white friends got a DWBIPS that's driving with blacks in the passenger seat or the time I almost got shot by police for having the audacity to be standing outside of the apartment building I manage, but that would be like shooting a dead horse carrying a bag of skittles.

Marquis addresses a large crowd at USC.
I know what some of you are thinking, "This is different, this Trayvon kid got kicked out of school for having marijuana and fighting. You went to Northwestern, there's no way you would end up like that." To that I say, google Robert Russ. Robert was a year ahead of me at Northwestern and was so easy going he was given the nickname “Fluff”. Now mind you he played defensive line so he was a BIG dude, a big BLACK dude. One night, just a few days before he was supposed to walk across the stage and get his diploma from a top 15 university, Fluff was shot and killed by police. The officer claimed self-defense, saying Fluff reached for the officer's gun and was cleared by the department. REALLY?!? An honors student AT NORTHWESTERN reached for an officer's gun. REALLY? Luckily for Fluff's family, the jury in the civil trial saw through that horse shit and gave them a sizable judgment. Though they may have felt a small bit of vindication, the fact is no amount of money his daughter, girlfriend, and mother received, is going to bring back Fluff.

The scary part is that I know there is no way for the police or any overzealous vigilante to know who I am or what I've done while I'm walking down the street. They wouldn't know that I've opened up for The President in front of forty thousand people or that I was the only man who spoke on a Ladies Night fundraiser with The First Lady and Jill Biden. They wouldn't know that I graduated from Northwestern, or that I built a robot to win my 8th grade science fair. They wouldn't know that I've raised money for the arts and the environment, that I've tutored young people and taught at one of the worst schools in Chicago. All they would know (which is the same thing that George Zimmerman knew about Trayvon) is that I am a black male, which in turn makes me a suspect, and you will receive no penalty for treating me as such.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

What I'm Giving Up

When I feel stuck in life, sometimes the simple act of letting go of old things, cleaning out a desk drawer, my closet, or my purse (which is a cry for help right now) can provide a feeling of relief. It seems to magically create a vacuum in my life, making room for new possibilities. But emotional clutter is another issue. 

All the self-help books tell us that the past does not define the future, the wake does not drive the boat, etc. But most of us hold on to things from the past, which keeps us rooted there. We don’t open that “drawer in our head” often enough, and soon we’ve got a jumbled head full of old beliefs and stories that no longer serve us. Or maybe that’s just me. Just like my closet, I need to do an inner purge now and then.

In order to make room for peace, harmony, and balance in my life, these are the things I’m giving up:

If I’m feeling resentment, this means I’ve taken on too much, haven’t set limits or healthy boundaries, and now I’m frustrated with a situation I helped create. I can either accept the situation I’ve chosen and find gratitude for it, or I can change it and choose something different. I am gladly giving up resentment, and making room for gratitude.

My Old Story
I grew up the daughter of a convict and a single mom who worked nights in a bar, we used food stamps to buy our groceries and blah, blah, blah. I’ve already lived that story. It held me down long enough. I wrote the memoir. Wrote the essays. The story is over. I don’t want, nor need, to live it any longer. Buh-bye old story. I’m making room for a new story.

Feelings of Worthlessness
Those are going out along with the old story. Period.
I’m making room to step into my full value as a human being.

Co-authoring Dancing at the Shame Prom changed me in so many positive ways. It really helped me to shed a lot of that old shame. But shame is sneaky. It finds new and different ways to lurk into my psyche: money-shame, aging-shame, body-image shame. Once again, I'm kicking it to the curb, making room for self-acceptance.

I have struggled a lot in my life. I’ve struggled financially. I’ve struggled for justice. I’ve struggled in family relationships. But recently, while teaching my son how to swim, I learned something. He was struggling in the water, exerting so much energy while going nowhere, eventually sinking. I kept telling him, “Just relax and let your body float. The water will support you.” And bingo- I made the connection. Stop struggling and float. Let the Universe support me. I’m letting go of struggle to make room for peace.

Writing helps a lot with emotional purging, which is why I’ve always kept a journal. But when writing it out isn’t enough, I pray. I pray for help in letting old beliefs go. Whether I believe in God (I do) or religion (not so much) doesn’t really matter. Words and intention hold great power. Simply stating that I want to give something up (on a daily basis) has changed me greatly.

I’m making room in my life for love, goodness, miracles, joy, and passion.

What are you willing to give up today? What are you making room for? I’d love to hear about it. 
Imagine the possibilities...